Schizophrenia is a severe disorder where the brain can misinterpret reality. Disordered thinking, disordered behavior, delusions, and hallucinations are all hallmarks of the illness. While schizophrenia in children has the same characteristics of adult schizophrenia, it is an extremely rare occurrence.
Developing schizophrenia at such a young age can greatly impact a child’s development and will require lifelong treatment. The cause of childhood schizophrenia is not known, but there are certainly factors that can affect its development, such as genetics, a history of abuse, and their environment. If there are problems with a child’s brain chemistry, like the neurotransmitters glutamate and dopamine, that can also increase the risk of the disorder.
There are actually five different types of schizophrenia, each presenting their own set of symptoms.
If a child has paranoid schizophrenia, he or she will have auditory hallucinations, delusions, psychosis, and paranoia. If a child has catatonic schizophrenia, he or she may flip back and forth between immobility and silence, to constant movement and mimicking behavior. Disorganized schizophrenia occurs when a child is unable to complete everyday tasks, when there are inappropriate social behaviors, or disorganized speech. If a child has residual schizophrenia, he or she may have one schizophrenic episode in the past, but hasn’t had one since. If a child has undifferentiated schizophrenia, he or she will exhibit multiple symptoms from the other four types.
Sometimes the symptoms of schizophrenia built up gradually, so it can be hard to diagnose. The earliest signs of childhood schizophrenia usually have to do with developmental delays, such as late crawling, late walking, speech delays, and disordered motor skills—like excessive movement or catatonia. Autism used to be confused with childhood schizophrenia, but it is its own disorder and must be ruled out with other spectrum disorders before a schizophrenia diagnosis.
An older child or preteen may have anti-social tendencies. He or she may withdraw from friends, do poorly in school, avoid eye contact, lack inflection when speaking, or lack emotional responses. He or she may also have trouble sleeping, have a poor memory, have a loss of appetite, have anxiety, have paranoia, or have a loss of hygiene.
It’s largely unknown what causes childhood schizophrenia. The development of the disease is thought to start in the same way as adult onset schizophrenia, though researchers are unsure of why some develop the disease early in life and some develop it later. The disease is attributed to a combination of genetics and environmental factors, meaning the patient would have a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia that might be triggered by harsh environmental factors. In childhood schizophrenia, the harsh environmental factor is thought to occur prenatally, such as a high fever or an infection in a pregnant woman. People with family members who have schizophrenia are at a much higher risk of having the disease themselves. There are also studies that show differences in brain structure in patients with schizophrenia as compared to non-affected human brains. The significance of the differences are unknown, but there is a clear correlation. There is also thought to be chemical imbalances in the brain that can contribute to childhood schizophrenia.
Childhood schizophrenia is usually treated by the recommendations of a child psychiatrist. However, social workers, family members, pediatricians, and psychiatric nurse can all help a child in managing the symptoms.
Anti-psychotic and anti-tremor medications may be needed.
For children that are older and teenagers, there may have to be a family intervention since they may not believe they are sick. Assertive community treatment (ACT) is also an intervention method where patients meet with counselors and doctors regularly to avoid hospital stays. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and other therapies can help children work through issues.
If a child is going through a crisis of severe symptoms, then a hospitalization stay is recommended. This stay ensures that your child is safe and that he or she is getting help with hygiene, nutrition, and good sleep habits.
Though it is unclear how to prevent childhood schizophrenia, there are some obvious risk factors that can be taken into account. The largest risk factor is having a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia; if a family member has schizophrenia, a child relative is more likely to develop it as well. Therefore, at-risk children should be regularly monitored by their parents or guardians for early warning signs or risk factors in order to possibly detect the disease early. If one might have a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia, those caring for them can best prevent it by providing a healthy life and environment for them, free from drugs and other substances, abuse of which while the brain is still developing can also be a contributing factor.
Since pregnancy and birth complications, such as an infection during the prenatal stage or early in development, malnutrition, or exposure to toxins in the environment, can also cause childhood schizophrenia, parents of children with a predisposition can aid in prevention by maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle themselves while pregnant, free from toxins such as alcohol. Problems resulting from autoimmune diseases are also thought to be a risk factor if a genetic predisposition is present, so regular health screening may be necessary.